The supposed site of Christ’s crucifixion, ‘Golgotha’ translates from the Bible as ‘place of the skull’. In Nirjay Mahindru’s searingly intense new play, the river Thames is also a place of skulls, haunted by the ghosts of a buried past.

Young Loretta is an unwilling immigrant in nineteenth-century London, brought over from India by the family whose sons she looks after. A century later, in the 1960s, her great-great-grandson Kalil leaves turbulent east Africa to start afresh in the UK.

Here, history is a scab with secrets festering beneath its surface. As Loretta’s life slides into degradation, Mahindru gives us a Victorian London that is both familiar and strange: immigrants and prostitutes cast to society’s sides while ‘fat Queen Vic’ sags over her throne.

The play sometimes gets bogged down in historical narrative and some of its twists strain credibility. But as Loretta and Kalil learn that racial prejudice and cruelty are constants through time, the script scorches us with fierce, bitter wit.

Iqbal Khan’s haunting production makes a gothic horror of Loretta’s world: a surreal, dockside purgatory of piled rubbish where horrific events are re-lived in eerie half-light. This is swept away for Kalil, leaving a bare and unforgiving stage as violence befalls him.

As Loretta and Kalil, Anjana Vasan and Raj Ghatak blast us with grief and anger as more than 100 years of British history become a cry of injustice, pain and loss. It’s not perfect, but this stark two-hander stays with you.

First published by Time Out